Sunday, February 13, 2011
Back to the Basics
Remember that first career you started when back when in the late sixties or early seventies? Maybe some of you were in law school (the men) and some of you were studying to be school teachers (the women and some men) or nurses (only women) or doctors (mostly men). It seems like eons ago. But recently I revisited my first love, my first career in the theater.
I was a kid who knew what I wanted to do in my life from almost the moment I was born. In all the years through elementary school and high school and university, I wanted to be an actress in the theater. I never doubted my path. My mother spotted a little talent and put me through my paces: dance, piano, speech and drama in high school. She was a stage mother who hid behind the scenes. I went off to college to study theater, to be that actress and then to reach for the higher academic success as a college professor.
As with all plans so meticulously ordered, there was a glitch. I got married and ended up in Las Vegas, Nevada, far away from the hallowed halls of Berkeley in the 60s. I went to work at the Sahara Hotel in in the sumer of 1964, went on a belated honeymoon for a month in Mexico and ended back in Vegas, baby, Vegas and took to my bed for 3 months. I read every book that I had wanted to read in college and got fat. By January, I knew my isolation was on overdrive and I went to some place called Nevada Southern University to finish what I thought was my last semester of college. Alas, they didn't have a theater major - I had actually completed my major - and I had to start all over again with another major. So theater became my minor and history became my major with an emphasis on education. A year and a half later, I graduated with a teaching credential, fully credentialed in history and theater and went off to teach drama in high school. I was back in theater minus the PhD.
I had a wonderful career in Las Vegas. From high school teaching, I then taught at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (name changes do wonders for the institution of higher learning), received a masters in Education and Theater and wrote two textbooks on acting. I acted in summer rep for years at the university and even ended up at the Kennedy Center one year to participate in the top ten theater productions around the country. I taught acting and stage movement as an adjunct professor. And then I reached the glass ceiling. There were no full time female professors in the theater department at the time and there wouldn't be for many years to come. There was no way to get a permanent position in theater, and so I went down the street and opened up my own theater. And for the next five years, I was ran a professional equity year round theater. It was what I had always wanted to do. Those were most difficult years of my life but the most joyful and fulfilling.
When my marriage was over, the theater was over. I left town and pursued acting in San Diego (kids in tow) and worked professionally for two years more. And then the party ended. I no longer felt the need to wait back stage for my cue. The year was 1982 and I went to Los Angeles and changed career directions and ended up in film school (American Film Institute) and never coached an actor or directed a play until two weeks ago.
The Jewish Women's Theatre is an organization that gives voice to Jewish writers, actors and artists. I was asked to join the board of advisors last summer. I'm not a joiner. I don't like groups without men. I like the mix of male/female hormones in a room. Women's groups creep me out. The matriarchs comes out in droves. Women get a chance to show power and get their mood swings validated without men watching. I said yes because I liked the idea of the format. Four evenings of salon readings. I pictured it like a reader's theater program. I like the idea of working with narrative material. My evening was to be called "Jewish Women Do Men." At the time, I wondered if Jewish women had a separate and unique take on men or had different relationships with their men that every other culture and/or religion didn't possess. I suspected that there is a universal context for relationship between men and women.
The director of the theater and I went through lots of narratives material, plays and poems. We selected the material and we shaped the evening. It wasn't fun. I wanted it to be fun but I was the new kid on the block and what did I know? I was used to working in the theater in collaborative relationships that were joyful and not stressful. Going back to a theater concept was suddenly angst. What was going on? Ever heard of mano a mano? This so-called collaboration had aspects of a dictatorship. I was mostly on the losing end. But we toughed it out over the material and I was reasonably pleased with the selections but not perfectly pleased. My eyes and ears were not her eyes and ears. I don't think we ever came to a full understanding of the material.
The director is supposed to casts the evening. I wasn't allowed to do that. Someone else picked the actors. We waited two weeks for a "star" to accept a role. Never happened. I finally brought in an actress that I knew would do a wonderful job. Then, I didn't have enough rehearsal time. That was standard operating procedure with this group. Nothing ever looked polished. Was I really in charge of directing or did I have a someone next to me to give me notes? I wasn't in full charge.
I was to do the first two pieces. The first piece was about how I know men through the lens of Argentine tango. Then my friend and I danced tango. My second piece was a reading from my book, Sixty, Sex, & Tango, Confessions of a Beatnik Boomer. I was back on the boards again, back in front of audiences. Piece of cake, I thought because I am in front of my yoga students daily. I "work" rooms of 60 students. I free-flow ideas and sometimes crack jokes and create an atmosphere in which joy prevails.
After several tough days with the person in charge of the theater, I was determined to go back to a theater experience that made sense to me, to get a sense of the actors, to rehearse more and to get a rhythm of performance going. I knew how to do that; I had done it for twenty-five years once upon a time in my past and I still had the chops to do it now.
I wondered: is what we once chose as a profession always available to us? Was I born with the capacity and the love of theater and was it true that I could never lose that feeling? Was it in my DNA?
"You really know what you're doing," the theater founder said to me one night at rehearsal. "I can learn a lot from you."
Years of classes on acting, acting styles, writing, directing, performing, organizing, setting plays for the seasons, having an eye for what is good and what works, for the tone and style and rhythm of a play or an evening - how do you learn that in one or two nights of watching someone direct or coach an actor. It's passion with a high degree of education and it's in your blood, your heart, your mind and it never leaves you, ever. That's what I learned through this experience and I never knew beforehand that it was possible to still possess the knowledge and skill of once upon a time having all of that inside of me.
The three evenings went very well. We all got better each night and by the third night we could have done a week of performances. A group consciousness had been built and joy came into our work. It was an ensemble and we were hitting our stride. It's what we do in the theater. It's what we love about the theater.